Tuesday, January 25, 2005

How to improve writing (no. 3 in a series)

Today's example, a newspaper headline, reporting on the lack of student attendance at a One Book, One Campus discussion:

One Book draws less than one student
The writer has made a very common mistake by confusing less with fewer. The distinction is really simple: fewer applies to individual items; less applies to quantities. For instance,
Fewer than half the residents returned the survey.

There are fewer good bookstores than there used to be.

We used less than half the flour to make the bread.

Put in less sugar.
My guess is that signs for express checkout lanes--"less than 20 items"--have done a lot to foster the fewer/less mistake.

But even if you change less to fewer, our headline would still be awkward. The writer is clearly aiming for comic effect, but what does "fewer than one" mean? A less awkward headline might have been
One Book, No Students
or
One Book, Not One Student
Too bad that it wasn't possible to write "One Book draws overflow student crowd." That's a headline I'd like to see.

Link » Other How to improve writing posts, via Pinboard

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